Read My Lips: is it unethical to lip read celebrities?


Heather Gosling and Grace Bannister explore the TikTok trend of celebrity lip-reading

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By Heather Gosling and Grace Bannister

In a seemingly new trend on social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram, users have found a new way to investigate the lives of their favourite celebs. Lip-reading: the new social media phenomenon that renders whispering redundant.

Previously thought of only as a necessity for those with a hearing impairment, lip-reading has now become a social-media phenomenon. Lip-readers share their speculations for the conversations between different celebrities online. From Taylor Swift at the Superbowl, to celebrities on the red-carpet – it seems that celebrity spheres are becoming increasingly monitored and scrutinised. However, does this trend go beyond concerns of invading celebrity privacy? What happens when the supposed ‘lip reading experts’ get it wrong, and what rumours are they spreading?

Nina Dellinger, TikTok’s top lip-reader, has attracted lots of attention for her uncanny ability to decode celebrity conversation. Her top-hit: a video uncovering a conversation between A-list celebs Timothée Chalamet and Kylie Jenner at the Golden Globes. While this conversation was fairly mundane and probably not too dissimilar to one that you’ve had yourself ( Jenner sharing her thoughts on Chalamet’s tie, followed by their respective “I love you’s”), isn’t the principle of this new lack of privacy at least a little bit alarming?

Dellinger has decoded conversations from the red carpet, to a video taken by the paparazzi. This recent rise in lip reading celebrities can be seen as part of surveillance culture and our ever-increasing interest in the lives of celebrities. Social media feeds on our addiction to knowing everything about celebrities and now, even their conversations are no longer private. Dellinger has stated that: “I think the main reason for the boom, unfortunately, is that when you’re a celebrity, people want to know about your life.” Wanting to know about celebrities and their lives is something we can all relate to with our hounding of gossip columns and TikTok posts. However, holding celebrities up to moral standards over their conversations leads us down a dangerous road of surveillance culture. Recently, Taylor Swift has been seen on the red carpet with a fan covering her lips to protect her from lip readers, something that she should not have to do to have privacy.

Dellinger has certain limits on what she will lip read. In a recent video post revealing a conversation between Olivia Rodrigo and Iris Apatow at the Lakers game, Dellinger omitted the name of the man that Rodrigo was talking about. Dellinger stated that: “If I read something that is too personal, too invasive, I absolutely won’t post that.” “I’d never want to stir some-thing up or imply something that could also turn out not to be true.” And herein lies the problem: where is the line when it comes to lip-reading? Who gets to decide what does and does not become public knowledge? No one should feel that their conversations are being scrutinised by the public. Lip-reading only has an accuracy of 40 percent on average, and therefore it is not a reliable source of information. In all of her videos, Dellinger states that what she is lip-reading is ‘alleged information’, but this does not stop her viewers from taking it as the truth.

We all know social media has the potential for misinformation, but isn’t this concept even more alarming when it is seemingly backed by ‘expert evidence’? A prime example is the rumours of divorce taken from a conversation between Emily Blunt and John Kraskinski at the Golden Globes. Lip-readers on TikTok assured their followers that Kraskinski told Blunt that he: “can’t wait to get a divorce”. While these rumours have now been dispelled, with Blunt and Kraskinski speaking out against the allegations (Kraskinski actually telling Blunt that he “[couldn’t] wait to get indoors”) this certainly shows the platform available to lip-reading content creators. Rumours spread faster than real news, so is it possible that these creators are purposefully spreading misinformation for more clicks and views?

We believe that we are entitled to information about celebrities: their whereabouts, their thoughts, and their words. The desire to gain this information, that we should not, in fact, feel entitled to, is what causes parasocial relationships with celebrities. Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, and are most common with celebrities. With the wealth of information about celebrities on the internet, it is no wonder that we feel like we know them. Social media drives these parasocial relationships, making us forget that celebrities are real people, and listening in on their conversations is incredibly invasive.

While Selena Gomez and Emily Blunt have now been able to laugh at their respective rumoured conversations, Gomez sharing a photo of her and Blunt to her story with the caption “we shall not speak lol”. This new phenomenon is certainly not something we should expect celebrities to simply ‘laugh off ’. Rumours and false allegations are damaging and we need to recognise the dangers of misinformation and fake news, and look more critically at the content produced by so-called TikTok experts.